South African Wine Update by Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

South African wines have made great strides in the last decade but, even though sales in Canada are steadily climbing, they’re not making the impact on the Canadian market that they should. South Africa is still way under the radar of many Canadian wine-lovers.

Why? Older consumers might remember the South African wines that arrived after the racist regime fell in 1994 and international trade sanctions were lifted. South African winemakers had been cut off from much of the wine world since the 1980s, a time when the New World wine was revolutionized. (Think of Ontario, New Zealand, and Chile.) When the long-awaited South African wines started to flow into the LCBO in the mid-1990s, they were generally disappointing and out of touch with international expectations.

But South Africa’s producers caught up amazingly quickly. They sorted out problems in the vineyards, began to plant a bigger range of varieties, opened up new regions and sites, and improved winemaking practices. It has all paid off, and now South African wines are competitive, in quality terms, at all levels. They are more than competitive in price: they are generally undervalued, and there are many very good-to-excellent values, whether you want to spend $10, $20, $30 or more.

Some really exciting wines are now coming out of South Africa. Chenin blanc is the country’s signature white, and I tasted some masterful examples recently. These are quite different from the chenin blancs of the Loire Valley and Ontario. The best South African chenins are often fruit-forward, and sometimes creamy textured, but they don’t surrender any structure and acidity. Among the best are Spice Route, Morgenhof and Ken Forrester.

The country’s signature red variety is pinotage (a pinot noir-cinsaut cross carried out in South Africa in the 1920s) and it’s had a rough ride. Until recently, many had unpleasant burnt rubber flavours, but they’ve figured out the problem (in the vineyards) and most of the new generation of pinotages are clean, fruity and well balanced. Some of the great pinotage producers, like Kanonkop, continue to make stellar wines with long cellaring potential (I tasted a 1998, which is still going strong), and others to look for are Bellingham, Tulbagh, Beyerskloof, and Spier.

But syrah is making a stronger play right now, and syrahs were among the best wines I tasted on my recent trip to South Africa. Growers capture optimal ripeness in the fruit, and plant them in conditions that moderate the summer heat and allow for the development of natural acidity. Producers to look for include Cederberg, Hartenberg, Bellingham and Tamboerskloof.

Let’s not forget the other varieties. There are many excellent wines made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and the red Bordeaux varieties, and there are many winning white and red blends.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin BlancJulien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011Some South African Wines to Try

Julien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011 ($19.95)

This chardonnay is made by an Alsatian winemaker in Elgin, South Africa’s coolest region; a chardonnay from Alsace might taste like this. The fruit is really pure, with broad complexity and a linear texture. The acidity comes through bright and clean, and contributes food-versatile juiciness. It’s a real gem. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Petit Chenin Blanc 2011 ($13.95)

Made by Ken Forrester, this is an entry-level chenin blanc that’s well made and provides a good sense of many South African chenins. The fruit has a sweet core and is persistent from start to finish. It’s harnessed to bright, clean acidity, and makes for a fruit-driven but well-balanced wine.

The Chocolate Block 2010($39.95)

Made by the highly regarded Boekenhoutskloof winery, this is a blend that’s mostly syrah, with varying contributions of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and cinsault, with a dash of viognier – all from a variety of regions. The result is impressive: a fairly big-bodied and full-flavoured red that retains balance, complexity and freshess. The tannins are easy-going, and this is drinking well now and over the next four or five years. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009 ($14.95)

This is a really attractive shiraz (with a dash of viognier). The fruit-sweet flavours are rich and focused, consistent right through the palate, and well defined. They’re supported by fresh acidity and framed with sleek, ripe tannins. The texture of the wine is full and slightly taut. It’s simply a pleasure to drink.

The Wolftrap Syrah/Mourvèdre/Viognier 2009 ($13.95)

This Rhône blend delivers value right across the board. The syrah, which is two-thirds of the blend, is from Swartland, and it provides a solid core of flavour and balance. The texture is quite rich and smooth, and the tannins are drying and easy-going. It’s a versatile red for the table.

The Chocolate Block 2010Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009The Wolftrap Syrah-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2009

South African Regionality

Like many wine-producing countries, South Africa is stressing regionality in wines, to highlight the different styles and varieties produced in different regions. The best-known – like Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek – continue to earn their status, but a few up-and-coming regions are attracting attention.

One that’s creating a real buzz is Swartland, a warm region to the north of Cape Town, where a number of small producers have launched “The Swartland Wine Revolution.” There’s no varietal or stylistic theme, but these wineries (including Lammershoek, which is often in our market) are innovating in blends and varieties. Try anything that comes from Swartland.

Finally, some of the newer southern regions, like Elgin and Walker Bay are also well worth watching. They are cooler and are producing high-toned and structured wines from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir.

But it’s easy to become fixated on innovations. Established producers in the established regions have upped their game, and many turn out terrific wines that represent great value. In short, South Africa has a dynamic wine industry, well attuned to the international market at all price-levels.

Re-calibrate your radar so that you notice these wines when they appear in Vintages releases and elsewhere.


Rod Phillips

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